No words can adequately express our collective sadness and revulsion over the events that occurred in Israel over the last three months. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that destroy a sense of security, making an individual feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves a person feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it does not involve physical harm. “It is not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but a subjective emotional experience of the event” (Dr. Dawn Apgar).
Initial reactions to psychological trauma can include confusion, sadness, anxiety and blunted affect. Indicators of more severe responses include continuous distress without periods of relative calm, severe dissociation symptoms, and intense intrusive recollections that continue despite a return to safety (also known as catastrophizing).
Immediate emotional reactions include numbness, anger, helplessness and denial. Delayed emotional reactions include depression, vulnerability and anxiety. Similarly, immediate physical reactions include nausea, sweating, shivering and extreme fatigue. Delayed physical reactions include sleep disturbances and lower resistance to colds and infection.
Trauma can also affect one’s beliefs about the future in terms of loss of hope, limited expectations about life, and fear that life will end abruptly. There are also existential reactions to trauma such as despair about humanity (particularly if the event was intentional as was the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on the citizens of southern Israel). The trauma can also include an immediate disruption of life assumptions such as fairness, safety, goodness, predictability of life, and God’s protection from harm.
Perhaps the worst reaction is hopelessness which is a feeling that the situation will never improve. I recall asking the revered Rabbi Abraham Twerski. M.D., z”l if he worried about conveying a false sense of hope to trauma victims in his books and lectures and he responded, “I am much more apprehensive about conveying a false sense of despair.”
Seven Ways to Manage Your Feelings and Self-Care
There is no right or wrong way to react. It is essential that you make space for self-care during this painful time. The triangle-of-health consists of proper nutrition, adequate exercise and enriching sleep.
The first step is to recognize and accept your feelings as adequate responses to extreme and abnormal circumstances.
Seek support; look for someone who is able to provide a compassionate response.
Limit media consumption. While it is tempting to seek out any information and news, the repeated viewing of tragic and terrifying images is not only extremely harmful but it is slow to fade from memory.
Maintain a regular schedule and take time-out as needed.
Try to avoid getting to a point of feeling overly hungry, angry, lonely or tired as at those points, you are more at risk for feeling overwhelmed.
Tikkun olam! Do good things! Give tzedaka, engage in prayer and send vital supplies to the IDF or to displaced families. These powerful actions help alleviate trauma. “Remember, if you are having difficulty coping, it is not an indicator of your weakness, but rather a sign of your humanity” (Ohelfamily.org).
Seven Tips to Avoid Catastrophic Thinking
Catastrophizing is when a person fixates on the worst possible outcome and treats it as likely, even when it is not.
- Acknowledge that unpleasant things do happen.
- Recognize irrational thoughts.
- Say “STOP” to break the stream of thoughts and help change your thinking.
- Think about a positive outcome rather than a negative one.
- Offer positive affirmations on a daily basis
- Practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), recommended by mental health experts as being effective in this area.
- Practice excellent self-care plus stress relief techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and journaling (R. Nall, MSN).
Phrases That Help Trauma Survivors: Seven Suggestions
This last group of seven tips should assist you in preparing for how to speak with trauma survivors. Your relationship with a survivor can have a positive impact on their recovery, so it helps to know what to say and what not to say.
Instead of “You need to talk about it” try “I’m here to listen if you need to talk.”
Instead of “Things will get better” try “I see and hear that you’re in pain.”
Instead of “It’s time to move on” try “I’m here for you.”
Instead of “Let me help you” try “How can I help you?”
Instead of “This made you stronger,” try “This has impacted you considerably.”
Instead of asking “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” try “Thank you for trusting me.”
Instead of trying to be inspiring and profound, just say nothing. Sit with them in silence (Amanda Gregory, LCPC).
Let us stand united in our prayer for an end to the loss of life in Israel and the safe return of our soldiers and hostages.
Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New Jersey and New York since 1980 with an 80% success rate in saving marriages on the brink of divorce. He is an adjunct professor for the Touro University Graduate School of Social Work and is a certified discernment counselor. He blogs at FamilyThinking.com and serves on the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists and the Beyond Affairs Network. He authored the book, “Creating Your Perfect Family Size” (Wiley). His mantra is: I will be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage! Contact him at [email protected] or (732) 572-2707.